‘Awakened’ universities could be fined for ‘cancellation of culture’ under new free speech law
A new law being introduced to strengthen free speech in universities will help to counter “the deterrent effect of censorship on campus once and for all,” said a political leader.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the new legislation will protect “the rights of students and academics” as it will hold universities to account on the issue of free speech.
On Wednesday 12 May, the bill on higher education (freedom of expression) was presented for the first time in Parliament.
According to the Press Association, the bill could see universities facing fines if they fail to protect free speech on campus.
This was part of the proposed changes to the laws set out in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday.
The Department of Education (DfE) has said universities and colleges registered in England will be required to promote and defend freedom of speech and academic freedom under the proposed legislation.
The Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulatory body in England, would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they fail to meet this requirement.
Academics, students or guest lecturers will be able to seek compensation in court if they suffer a loss due to a violation of freedom of expression obligations.
For the first time, university student unions would be required to take action to ensure the legal freedom of expression of members and guest speakers under the provisions of the bill.
Mr Williamson said: “It is a fundamental human right to be able to express oneself freely and to participate in rigorous debate.
“Our legal system allows us to articulate points of view with which others may disagree as long as they fall below the threshold of hate speech or incitement to violence.
“This needs to be defended, nowhere more than in our world-renowned universities.
“Holding universities accountable for the importance of freedom of expression in higher education is a decisive moment in fulfilling our manifest commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics and combating the deterrent effect of censorship on campus once and for all. “
In February, the education secretary warned of “unacceptable silence and censorship” on campuses when he unveiled proposed legal measures to protect free speech.
Among the government’s proposals is the appointment of a new director of freedom of expression and academic freedom, who will investigate possible violations of freedom of expression obligations and oversee a complaints system for students. , staff and guest speakers who suffered losses due to a violation.
The DfE highlighted a few examples from recent years where it said students, staff and guest speakers felt unable to speak up.
In one incident, the Bristol Middle East Forum was charged nearly £ 500 in security fees for inviting the Israeli ambassador to speak at an event, they said.
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But the University of Bristol said no security costs were incurred as the event – which was due to take place in February last year – was called off.
In another case, academics signed an open letter in 2017 expressing their opposition to comments by Oxford professor Nigel Biggar that the British should have “pride” as well as shame in the Empire, the DfE said.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “The values of free speech and academic freedom are an important part of what makes our higher education system so respected around the world.
“That is why this government will tackle head-on the growing cooling effect on our campuses that silences and censors students, academics and guest speakers.”
“This bill will ensure that universities not only protect freedom of expression, but also promote it. After all, how can we expect society to progress or opinions to modernize if we cannot challenge the status quo?
Jo Grady, general secretary of the Union of Universities and Colleges (UCU), said: “This bill must be seen for what it is: the government is using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse to increase its power and control over staff and students. “
She added: “If this authoritarian government really wanted to strengthen free speech, then why is it cracking down on the right to protest freely through the Police and Crime Bill?
“The truth is that prevalent precarious employment robs academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and reduces the chances of career development.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK) said: “Universities share the government’s commitment to protect and promote freedom of expression, which is essential to the success of the higher education sector.
“Universities are already rightly legally bound to protect free speech and academic freedom, and they regularly update their policies in this regard.
“It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Bill is proportionate – focusing on the small number of incidents – and does not duplicate existing legislation or create unnecessary bureaucracy for universities , which could have unintended consequences. “
An OfS spokesperson said: “Freedom of expression and academic freedom are essential elements of effective teaching and research.
“Universities and colleges have a legal obligation to protect both freedom of expression and academic freedom, and their fulfillment of these responsibilities is an important part of their registration requirements with the OfS.
“We will ensure that the changes resulting from the proposals expressed in (the) Queen’s Speech reinforce these responsibilities and incorporate the broadest definition of freedom of expression into law.
“We will continue to work closely with the government as these proposals are developed.”
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “We are strongly committed to upholding freedom of expression and to welcoming the decisions of our student societies to invite a wide range of speakers to our campus, including those whose opinions may be considered controversial or divisive.
“However, it is important that these events take place in safety and in accordance with the law. As part of the planning for each of these events, the company and the student union conduct a comprehensive risk assessment.
“If there are enough concerns surrounding the event, particularly if we are aware of planned events, security may be necessary to ensure the safety of participants, which is included in the Commission’s guidelines for the event. equality and human rights for higher education providers.
“In addition, some speakers, especially high profile ones, need security to be present.
“The costs of the event – including security, if necessary – are borne by the company hosting the event – which happens for student groups across the country.”